Horseback riding is more than a hobby at Greystone

By on August 28, 2019

Local students thrive at therapeutic center

For nearly 40 years, a group of riding professionals, supported by a dedicated group of volunteers, have been working with children and adults with special needs to improve their health and well-being through horseback riding and interaction at the Greystone Manor Therapeutic Riding Center (GMTRC) in Lancaster.

With a mission to enhance the lives of its participants through equine-assisted activities, GMTRC is dedicated to help them gain strength, balance, and confidence while improving communications skills and feeling pride in their accomplishments.

For years, participants from the area including Ephrata, Lititz and Elizabethtown have benefited from the riding at the Lancaster site.
According to PATH International, therapeutic riding provides benefits in the areas of health, education, recreation and leisure. Because horseback riding rhythmically moves the rider’s body in a manner similar to a human gait, riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in flexibility, balance, and muscle strength.

Local riders have experienced the caring, passionate dedication of the Hartman Station Road GMTRC staff and — according to parents and guardians — seen both physical and emotional growth and an improved quality of life.

Emily Zahn of Lititz rides Neptune at Greystone Manor Therapeutic Riding Center.

Lititz’s Emily Zahn, an autistic teen, and Jean Neideigh, in her sixties, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago, are GMTRC riders. They look forward to their weekly sessions.
Zahn, a rising senior at Warwick High School, not only rides weekly, but volunteers doing barn work on Saturdays, her mom Stephanie says. Mrs. Zahn says the riding has helped Emily’s core strength and balance, and there was no adjustment to working with horses as she loves animals. For Emily, she describes it as “a lot of fun.”

Jean Neideigh, a former horse owner who was has been riding for more than two years says, “It took a little time re-learning what I use to do so naturally, but I love it now and it has helped both my balance and core strength.”

Neideigh can’t praise the Greystone staff and volunteers enough (and her mount, Samson) for all their help.

Horseback riding is an isometric exercise using certain muscles to stay in a certain position. It improves balance, motor coordination, muscle tone, flexibility, balance, and strength of participants, explains Michelle Kaster, GMTRC’s program and instruction coordinator.

Program Director Michelle Kaster and Lititz’s Emily Zahn with Neptune at Greystone Manor Therapeutic Riding Center.

“The interaction between riders and their mounts over time is visible as the horse responds to its rider creating a bond,” Kaster says.

Ephrata Highlands Elementary fourth grader, Lucas Rockey, has been riding since he was eight. Mom Jessica says they embraced therapeutic riding for their autistic son at the suggestion of his occupational therapist. Lucas says he was a little nervous at the start, but now enjoys riding and learning new skills, like guiding his horse Neptune around cones in the arena and participating in the horse show.

Greystone Manor Therapeutic Riding Center got its start in 1981 as a small program called Lancaster County Therapeutic Riding (LCTR). Over the years, it shared space at a number of riding stables. In 2009, Greystone took over an entire stable on Hartman Station Road, and today houses 14 specially trained horses, two full time staff members, 11 part-time staff, and more than 100 volunteers who help with riding lessons and equine activities, from cleaning stalls to assisting with fundraising activities.

GMTRC is a non-profit 501(c)(3) with a yearly operating budget of more than $200,000 that is supported by rider program fees, donations and fundraising activities, including a fall gala, and a horse show where participants show off their new skills and receive appropriate ribbons for their accomplishments in front of family and friends in a full day of riding events.

Linda Leiden, advisor to the GMTRC board, has served as a riding instructor and volunteer for nine years, and can’t praise the certified staff and volunteers enough for their caring, compassionate work with the participants.

“We just could not do it without the dedicated staff and volunteers,” Leiden says, “as each rider is accompanied by someone leading the horse and two side walkers to assist the participants and instructor as needed, as well as providing ongoing encouragement.”

Leiden explains that the safety of the participants is paramount, and the volunteers lend support giving the participants confidence as they learn to work with their Greystone mounts.
The programs are organized in six-week sessions with 45 minutes of riding each week.

“Each session has specific measurable goals,” Kaster, says. “It may be as simple as communicating verbally or physically with their mount, and becomes more complex like weaving a set of cones, circling a barrel, and then stopping the horse in a specific spot in the ring.”

Kate O’Toole is new to Greystone, and the autistic 19 year old is learning to care for and groom horses. Her mother, Julia, says her daughter has quickly grown attached to a 28-year-old mare Cassie who she brushes, combs, and works with every week. Kate visited Greystone for a horsemanship clinic and was excited about becoming part of the family. She talks about it all week long her mom says. In just a few months, it has helped her gross and fine motor skills and coordination. Kate describes it as “pure fun.”

Greystone works with 75 to 80 individuals each year in riding programs and they run horsemanship clinics as well as host groups of special needs children from local schools and other programs, giving them their first introduction to horsemanship.

Ephrata’s Lucas Rockey with Neptune at Greystone Manor Therapeutic Riding Center.

Kaster and fellow Greystone instructor Kate Gingrich, explain that riders are always working to align ear, shoulder, hips, and heels on their mount to help improve balance as well as control riders’ breathing in what, many times, is a completely new experience for them.

GMTRC riding instructors are all PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) certified, a program that takes 18 months to complete, and includes a confirmation of horsemanship skills, as well as training to work with riders with physical, cognitive and social-emotional challenges.

Volunteers also go through extensive hands-on training before they are allowed to work with riders.

“Many of our volunteers,” Leiden says, “have been with us for years, and it is the only way we are able to run a full schedule each week.”

Riders find their way to GMTRC through referrals from physicians, social workers, community groups, physical and occupational therapists, and friends. The riding program utilizes both indoor and outdoor facilities and operates from early February through December.

GMTRC has found that quarter horses, Haflinger draft horses and Welsh ponies, all 16 hands or under, adapt best to their new roles.

“The horses, all age 10 and above, must have a low flight-or-fight personality — meaning they will stay calm in just about every circumstance,” said Kaster.

Although the Center is well known among therapeutic riding centers, Leiden says it also can be one of the area’s best kept secrets. GMTRC, with a strong corps of instructors and volunteers, is able, going forward, to work with additional riders and will undertake more pro-active marketing in Lancaster County soon to alert families with adults or children with special needs of their services.

To learn more about Greystone Manor Therapeutic Riding Center, visit greystonemanortrc.org.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer for The Ephrata Review who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net. 

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